For sheer versatility, you’d be hard pressed to find another creative figure anywhere who can match Nitin Sawhney. Still only in his 40s, the Kent-born polymath’s work rate and range of achievements are quite incredible. As well as nine studio albums, he’s also found time to score the music for over 40 films, several ballet and theatre productions, advertising campaigns for Nike and Yves Saint Laurent, and the soundtrack for the BBC’s acclaimed Human Planet series. He’s collaborated with Paul McCartney, Sting and Brian Eno, has four honorary doctorates and was a founding member of the team behind hit British Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me. Basically, Sawhney is the grown up, nationally successful version of that annoying kid at school who was good at absolutely everything.
Last Days Of Meaning sees him joining forces with another famous friend, the actor John Hurt, who narrates a number of spoken word monologues on the album in his role as Donald Meaning, a bitter old man who loathes modern society and lives alone in freezing, dingy flat. Yes ladies and gentlemen, this is a full-blooded concept album, intended to provide, so Sawhney’s website informs us, “a response to the fear, dogmatism and entrenchment we sometimes acquire with age”. Using a cassette player sent to him by his ex-wife for reasons unexplained, Meaning listens to Sawhney’s songs, which provide a sympathetic commentary on his depressing, insular little world and ultimately give him hope.
Quite what the average geriatric recluse would make of Sawhney’s eclectic, shape-shifting music is debatable, but for those more familiar with his earlier work, all the usual diverse ingredients are present and correct on Last Days Of Meaning. It kicks off with the bluesy harmonica and guitar of The Devil And Midnight, featuring the soulful vocals of Phantom Limb’s Yolanda Quartey, who chastises Meaning by singing “it’s an easy life for the angry kind with a heart that’s growing cold/Just close your eyes and blame the world.” Confessions For The Womb has the kind of mellow coffee table beats that Sawhney specialises in, while Say You Will sees his other key influence, Indian classical music, enter the mix for the first time.The best moments appear around the halfway point with Projector, a gently lilting lullaby with longstanding collaborator Tina Grace’s vocals on the chorus recalling Nico in her pomp, and the elegantly atmospheric Daydream, a showcase for Ashwin Srinivasan’s blissful flute work.
Several of Sawhney’s albums have a central theme at their core – Displacing The Priest is a criticism of organised religion; Beyond Skin, which remains his masterpiece, reflects on the development of India into a nuclear power. But unlike these two records, Last Days Of Meaning feels like a selection of disparate musical snapshots rather than a satisfying whole, with little coherence of style to support the storytelling process. Although Hurt’s narration provides some continuity, it strays a little too close to Victor Meldrew-like parody to be a truly convincing portrayal of a tormented man’s twilight years, and Sawhney’s songs would frankly flow much better without his presence.
That Nitin Sawhney is prodigiously talented is not in question, but nevertheless Last Days Of Meaning is the latest in a lengthening series of underwhelming, frustrating albums since the Mercury-nominated Beyond Skin in 1999, characterised by uneven songwriting and attempts to stir one genre too many into the sonic melting pot. While not as flawed and over-ambitious as London Undersound or Human, the feeling persists that this is an artist who would benefit from calling a halt to all the grand projects for a while and going back to basics.